The ever-thoughtful Esther Lardent recently asked whether we are “shrinking pro bono?” As I understand it, the core of her worry about the impact of unbundling innovation is expressed in this para.
In the right context, limited-scope pro bono service can be a powerful and positive tool. But all too often of late, we seem to equate or conflate pro bono with limited service. This is a most troubling development. The reality is that the need for more extensive pro bono assistance is greater today than ever before. For the vast majority of pro bono clients – low-income individuals and families – limited service is often insufficient to resolve their legal needs and problems. These clients are often less-educated, less able to advocate on their own behalf, and have little or no experience with the justice system. They need an advocate to achieve the best results. Many other matters, such as class action suits and policy advocacy efforts, require pro bono commitments that are substantial in terms of time, skills, and duration.
I think her worry is that it is just too easy for pro bono programs to focus on limited scape and essentially drop out of the more demanding, but still urgently needed full representation.
I have been, and will continue to be a big advocate of limited scope pro bono. I think that the programs, which are often run by courts (this making them probably less work for pro bono coordinators) can offer very attractive pro bono roles, including to many who have not found appropriate pro bono roles in the past, as well as help large numbers of individuals.
But if limited scope is really cutting back on the rest of pro bono, I would suggest that pro bono folks need to talk this as a challenge and look inward and think what they need to do in both the long and short term to rethink and rebuild pro bono so that there is buzz in fields beyond limited scope.
Indeed, Esther suggests several such paths in her posting, including rethinking what lawyers want to do, offering more demanding opportunities, increased innovation in pro bono models, and ceasing what she rightly calls “unthinking recognition.”
At the most theoretical level, I think we need more research on what works and what does not in pro bono administration. There are huge differences in what is done, as suggested by Esther, and so much to learn and share in alternative approaches. After all, 12.5% of the LSC grant budget is a lot of money, and its worth trying to see that it is well spent.
I made some suggestions for LSC grant applications that might move this process forward, including some that would expand the use of unbundling, here. And, how about the following:
- Looking to many more kinds of partners to bring in focused kinds of cases — like medical legal — that would appeal to a new constituency
- Getting large firms to become experts on particular substantive areas of low and middle income practice, and thus appealing to craft pride
- More training on pro bono class action approaches — its a real skill that bit firms may not have on the plaintiff side
- Focus groups of attorneys on how they could best engage and support pro bono
- Making sure that every state has a real pro bono resource and recruitment website
So, go to it.